We’ve lost the bubble on discussing the Iranian nuclear problem with anything like a reliable common baseline, and this week has made that abundantly clear.
Start with the missile activity this week. It does appear that the two missile launches conducted on Wednesday, 9 March, could legitimately be called “tests.” There’s reason to think the missiles themselves were being tested and assessed.
But the multiple launches on Tuesday weren’t tests. They were part of a drill.
The difference is in whether Iran is testing missiles, or practicing the exercise of military power. And this week, Iran was doing the latter.
Iran has consistently referred to the entire series of missile events – which also included launches of shorter-range missiles – as a missile drill, which formed part of an exercise called Eqtedar-e-Velayat (Power of Islamic Governance).
And the launches on Tuesday, reportedly from missile silos, qualified as a drill. You don’t “test” missiles that you’re still developing by launching a bunch of them from silos. You test missiles in development at missile test facilities, one at a time.
The launches on Wednesday, which involved two types of missiles, one of them comparatively new, and a single shot of each, could be described as “tests” (although popping off more than one in a day is unusual).
But the launches on Tuesday were a military power exercise, using missiles that are already considered operational. They were about doctrine, a power display, how Iran is going to fight.
The inaccurate use of a single word by Western media, and the focus on whether the missile launches violate UNSCR 2231 and/or the JCPOA “deal” with Iran, have most people thinking vaguely that we’re talking about Iran developing some future capability. That’s not what was going on this week. Iran was exercising – and emphasizing – a current capability. The Iranians can already fire multiple rounds of the missiles launched on Tuesday (which can reach Israel, a point Iran has been making loudly), and fire them from hardened silos.
That’s the idea you need to have in your head. The intermediate-range missiles Iran launches from silos are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and the missiles are already operational in Iran’s arsenal. This isn’t all about “testing” and future capabilities.
Three other points amplify this one.
Forging ahead with ICBM-related testing
Point one: Iran is also preparing to test (yes, “test”) a new rocket system, named “Simorgh,” that would have applications for much longer-range missiles. The common path for testing these rocket systems for missile applications is to use them to launch satellites into orbit. Iran has notices to airmen published for dates in March that suggest a launch could occur in the next few weeks.
The Iranians have performed previous rocket testing with ballistic missile applications, starting in 2009. The Simorgh system is thought to be comparable to North Korea’s Unha-3 rocket system, which performed successfully in February 2016. This rocket system, launching from Iran, would be capable of delivering a warhead to all of Europe, and success with it would be a big step forward to an ICBM that could reach North America.
But I’m betting you haven’t heard about this. It’s a real question how much longer the public will have ready insight into what’s going on with these developments.
Stonewalling and confusion reign
Point two: On Tuesday, deflecting questions about the day’s multiple launches from silos, the State Department implied a strange delay in confirming what had actually happened. Spokesman John Kirby referred several times to the need to confirm the nature of the missile launches, as if we didn’t know within hours (or more likely minutes).
A reporter at the State daily briefing clearly (and correctly) expected U.S. national intelligence to have better insight than that. But Kirby just kept talking about the need to confirm the events.
MR KIRBY: Yeah. Don’t read too much into my language. If these reports are confirmed, if we believe that the press reporting is accurate and that they have tested ballistic missiles, then we will raise it with the UN, as we have in the past.
QUESTION: Great. Okay. Second, ballistic – excuse me. Ballistic missile tests happen out in the air. Something goes up in the air, correct?
MR KIRBY: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: So why are you not certain whether or not they did this, since that should be visible by national technical means?
MR KIRBY: Well, I’m not going to talk about intelligence matters. This – these reports just, just came to light, and it’s no surprise, I don’t think, to any of you that it takes us – we want to take the time that’s appropriate to analyze whatever information that we have, and there are multiple sources of information that we can pull from with respect to ballistic missile launches, and we’re going to do that. We’ll do that responsibly. And when we have a conclusion, then we’ll know.
Contrast this with the prompt acknowledgment to the public, after the North Korean rocket launch only a month ago, that the U.S. knew exactly what had happened.
This special stonewalling on Iran is presumably something we can expect more of. Kirby also deflected questions on how the missile launches violate existing sanctions, by focusing – in a rather specious manner – on whether they violate the nuclear JCPOA or UNSCR 2231, the resolution by which the UN adopted the JCPOA in lieu of earlier UNSCRs sanctioning Iran’s nuclear program. (Strictly speaking, they don’t.)
But the sanctions point about the missile launches is that they violate the terms of UNSCR 1929, adopted in 2010 and superseded by UNSCR 2231. 2231 replaces 1929 (along with the specifically nuclear-related sanctions resolutions), and calls on Iran to abstain from the activity proscribed by 1929. It’s up to the Security Council to read that in a robust, meaningful manner, or not. (Which means it’s up to the U.S. to exercise leadership or not.) The missile launches also violate U.S. national resolutions against Iran’s missile development activity. In January 2016, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions due to an Iranian missile launch in October, which violated both the terms of 1929 (then still in force) and U.S. resolutions.
It’s actually weird that there isn’t more clarity about that in the public communications of the Obama administration. Whatever confusion may exist among journalists, the U.S. State Department should lead with crisp, clear assertions of fact, and not get tangled up bass-ackwards in parsing mistaken impressions.
Watching John Kirby fumble around trying to distinguish between the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231, when all he had to do was say “UNSCR 1929 and U.S. law would define what the violations were,” makes you wonder what goes on at staff meetings in the State Department.
The strange case of reduced IAEA reporting on Iran’s nuclear program
The elided, half-gulped, help-me-out-here nature of the administration’s public face on what we’re doing about Iran is all of a piece, however. The bottom line take-away, each time we hear from Team Obama about Iran, is that nothing is going to be done, and we’re going to hear less and less that we can depend on. We won’t even know what’s coming. No one we can trust is going to tell us.
Point three: That was glaringly obvious this week when Yukio Amano, chief of the IAEA, had to explain why IAEA’s latest report on monitoring the Iranian nuclear facilities had so much less information in it than such reports had before UNSCR 2231 went into effect.
Think-tank scientists were startled by the sudden cut-off of information in the latest report, released in late February. Amano’s statement was that the basis for monitoring and reporting was now different, under the new regime set up for the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231. But the U.S. and European governments were apparently caught by surprise: they clearly weren’t expecting this. And there was no reason – judging solely from the terms of the two documents – why they would.
The monitoring objectives by which IAEA determines what to inspect and report haven’t changed, with the adoption of the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231. If anything, according to the Obama administration, the longstanding objectives were supposed to be served more stringently, with “a robust and unprecedented inspections regime,” under the JCPOA.
To figure out if Iran is pursuing nuclearization peacefully, we still need to know the same things: among others, what’s been done with a stockpile of higher-enriched (near-20%) uranium, which Iran retained in convertible form; what Iran’s current stock of low-enriched uranium consists of; what’s happening with centrifuges at the operational enrichment facilities; what Iran’s progress is with developing new-generation centrifuges.
In the first day after Amano’s public response, the State Department had no answers. Its daily briefing yielded, among other things, this gem of an interchange:
MR KIRBY: … We are comfortable that Dr. Amano and his team will be able to maintain the tools and the verification mechanisms that they need to accurately reflect Iran’s compliance. And this whole issue about less information or not – it’s a different set of requirements under the deal now, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less stringent. And the idea that somehow less information, if in fact that’s the case, is less stringent, I just don’t think is accurate. The other thing is the nuclear program in Iran is different now, right. I mean, they are meeting their requirements and they are doing so – they have to do so under the deal in a much more transparent way, so we now know more than we’ve ever known, thanks to this deal, about Iran’s program.
QUESTION: How much near-20-percent highly enriched uranium does Iran now have?
MR KIRBY: I don’t know.
And he doesn’t. We now have no way to confirm whether anyone does, outside of Iran.
As of Wednesday, the Obama administration says it wants to get IAEA to resume reporting more information from its monitoring activities. But there’s no reason to think requests for more information will produce results.
For one thing, Russia has already said that the amount of information in the latest report is perfectly satisfactory. We can assume China has the same view. With a split between the Western governments and the Asian giants, the U.S. request will go nowhere.
But for another thing, there’s a good chance that Amano’s point about a new basis for monitoring and reporting refers to an agreement between IAEA and Iran, which no outside party will have visibility into. A similar issue arose last summer, less than a week after the 14 July announcement of the JCPOA.
The prelude to full implementation of the JCPOA was a process by which Iran was to satisfy IAEA about earlier experiments (from the last decade) that seemed to relate to nuclear warhead development. This was the work with so-called “possible military dimensions” (PMD). The process in question was to be agreed on by Iran and IAEA; other nations wouldn’t have a say in how it was set up.
That’s what led to the infamous “secret side deals” by which the Iranians would take their own samples from the suspect facility at Parchin, where much of the work was thought to have been done, and forward them to IAEA to satisfy the PMD inquiry.
Congress was naturally aghast at this. The Obama administration first said there were no secret side deals, but John Kerry ultimately explained that the U.S. would not have access to confidential implementation agreements between IAEA and Iran.
His point then would apply now. IAEA need not – in fact should not – publicize the terms of its agreement with Iran on precisely how monitoring and reporting will go.
So why did the new agreement between IAEA and Iran result in less reporting? Presumably because Iran has wanted it that way all along. Long-time non-proliferation expert (and former IAEA official) Olli Heinonen pointed out last Friday that Iran has long wanted IAEA to report less information about the Iranian nuclear program to the public.
For years, Tehran has advocated for less-detailed IAEA safeguards reports, citing concerns ranging from confidentiality matters to IAEA inspection authorities under the comprehensive safeguards agreement. The IAEA has consistently refuted these arguments. Less-detailed reporting, after all, fails to provide the transparency required for the JCPOA’s verification.
And on that head, we can note that last summer, Iran commended IAEA for keeping the “side deals” on handling the PMD inquiry confidential. The less public scrutiny of the inspection regime for Iran’s nuclear program, the better Iran likes it.
It’s highly probable that reduced reporting was a condition Iran demanded for cooperating with IAEA under UNSCR 2231. Iran gets to seem cooperative, but doesn’t have the inconvenience of being accountable for suspicious activities.
The problem for the American public is that – to channel Donald Rumsfeld – we won’t know what we don’t know. We can’t make any confident assumptions about what our government will know, and we certainly can’t make assumptions about what the Obama administration would do with any information it had.
We’re left with the cold comfort of being told that IAEA knows everything anyone needs to, and we should just trust that that will produce an acceptable outcome.
Trust, in other words, is the new verify.
One more piece of good news. IAEA requested a bigger budget to implement the new monitoring regime for Iran, which gives us dramatically less information to make policy decisions from. But the Obama administration didn’t even put as much funding as IAEA asked for in its 2017 budget request.
How much further off the bus can the wheels fall?